f all the things you might call a former first lady’s style, “edgy” is not a descriptor that typically comes to mind. Chic, maybe. Thoughtful, sure. Impeccably tailored? Almost certainly. But edgy — a word that suggests an avant-garde or experimental approach to getting dressed — isn’t often applied to people whose resumes include things like championing causes of national importance, meeting with diplomats and representing the interests of a country in a day’s work. Maybe that’s why I still can’t stop thinking about Michelle Obama’s thigh-high, sparkling gold Balenciaga boots, even though it’s been almost three months (a lifetime, in internet years) since she wore them.
The evolution of Obama’s style from her time in the White House to present-day has been fascinating to observe. While acting as first lady, her style rarely if never pushed the envelope, but was worth examining in terms of the strategy behind it. My interest in it stemmed from the same place as my interest in what Kate Middleton or Meghan Markle wear: a curiosity about the underlying subtext that an outfit as simple as a sheath dress and skin-colored pumps can have when you are a woman with significant political influence and an associated ability to send a global message through your clothes.
Upon exiting the White House, Obama’s aesthetic took a definitive turn toward the relaxed. No longer operating under the pressure of having to look like the spousal counterpart of someone who holds the highest office in the land, she started dabbling in ripped jeans, gold hoops and gauzy off-the-shoulder tops. She looked like a woman who was finally able to walk out the door in whatever she felt like wearing, free from the consideration of whether or not that particular feeling was in line with that of a first lady and her corresponding image. Her early post-White House wardrobe choices understandably erred on the side of comfortable and practical without venturing too far into the unexpected, as if she wanted the initial stages of dressing for herself to garner as few headlines as possible.
It wasn’t until December 2018, shortly after the release of her memoir Becoming, that Obama seemed to be entering an even freer iteration of her personal style, one that did more than simply capture attention — it deliberately invited it. Within a few weeks of wearing the Balenciaga boots, she also sported black jeans with an asymmetrically structured black statement top that showed off a hint of cleavage, a crisp white wide-leg jumpsuit and matching belt and two different suits with two very different connotations (pajamas and Beetlejuice, respectively).
Because of the reality that we have to put on clothes every day, they are by default the most blatant visual representation of the story we want to tell about ourselves. There is a certain amount of intrinsic tenderness, therefore, in wearing clothes that actually say something about who we are, or who we want to be. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that Obama’s latest, bolder shift coincided with Becoming, the public telling of her life story in her own words, a story in which she was more vulnerable and open than ever before about her sense of self, her marriage, her reaction to the pressures of being America’s first Black first lady, her adjustment to Donald Trump’s election and her optimism about the future.
In months since, she has maintained her penchant for bolder, headline-making style statements with a coordinated sequin set at the Grammy’s, a cobalt tracksuit-cum-pantsuit hybrid with colorful striping and, just last week, a tangerine-colored silk blouse and trousers. While not every one of these outfits served up as much envelope-pushing clickbait as the glittering knee-highs that all but broke the internet, they are all edgy to the extent that they move the needle forward to a new understanding of what a former first lady can do with her wardrobe, and therefore what a former first lady can be. She can wear shoes that distract (delightfully so) from the conversation at hand. She can show skin. She can be vulnerable. She can have fun — a pleasure extended to anyone bearing witness to her transformation.
Feature photo by Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images.